Ars Technica weighs in on Adria Richards, and flaunts a double-standard

Here we go again. The Adria Richards story has settled into a couple of common themes, and Ars echoes the conventional wisdom. I’m very disappointed in this lazy editorial.

First, look at this nonsense:

Let’s start by spreading the blame where it’s deserved: on nearly everyone involved. The “Boy’s Club” mentality is thankfully no longer acceptable in tech, but it’s still common—some people have actually described tech to me as “men’s work.”

It’s no longer acceptable, but it’s common? Huh. Somebody didn’t think about what they were writing. We’ll just announce that the problem is nonexistent, while sweeping the reality of the situation aside.

But I’d like to point out something sneakier. Here’s the common message:

“Forking a repo” and “big dongles” must rank somewhere around “0.5: classless brospeak” on the seismic scale of harassing/menacing behavior toward women. While such sexually inappropriate comments are completely unnacceptable in professional settings (to many men as well as women), neither merits firing unless someone had a history of making unwelcome comments.

I think we all agree 100% that no one ought to have been fired over this incident. The major villains here are the two companies that used this event as an excuse to axe a couple of employees.

But notice what else everyone is saying: what the two guys did was trivial and minor, “‘0.5: classless brospeak’ on the seismic scale of harassing/menacing behavior toward women”. Keep that in mind for a moment. That kind of thing has been said a lot.

Yet these two men don’t get all of the blame. One recurring theme on message boards and chat rooms, including our own, is that while Richards had every right to report the behavior of the two men to conference organizers, snapping their photograph and posting it publicly to “Twitter shame” them was a step too far (speaking of a step too far, there are other, more repugnant recurring themes among commenters, too). They’re right; going public was not the only way Richards could get a relatively minor issue addressed. She could have confronted the two men or she could have gone straight to PyCon. Her actions only escalated the situation.

It’s a “relatively minor issue”. OK, let’s go along with that for a moment…let’s say it really was an inconsequential, negligible faux pas by the two guys. But if that’s the case, what is this bullshit?

…snapping their photograph and posting it publicly to “Twitter shame” them was a step too far…

Was it something to be ashamed of, or not? Was it a horrible, embarrassing thing to publicize, or was it a “relatively minor issue”? You don’t get to have it both ways. Either it was too damaging to make public, or it was a slight affront that shouldn’t seriously affect any of the participants — it was a minute impropriety that was perfectly reasonable to mention on a casual, conversational medium like Twitter.

This is what’s really pissing me off right now: the flagrant dishonesty of all these people having the vapors over someone posting a photo on Twitter and saying someone’s behavior was “not cool”. Jesus. Have they ever fucking used Twitter? It’s non-stop chatter — just today I’ve been accused of being a “Nazi” and of being “evil”. Please, Ars Technica, do your tut-tut routine right now over all the naughty people ‘Twitter shaming’ right and left. Please also express your sadness that thousands of tweets are going up right now ‘Twitter shaming’ Adria Richards in far more outrageous terms than “not cool.”

Are people seriously proposing that somehow Twitter should be policed for manners, and we should start wagging our fingers at people who dare to rebuke others via that medium? If so, half my correspondents are going to have to shut up. This is ridiculous. Richards’ comment was minor, was appropriate, and was addressing a real issue in a reasonable way.

And then there’s this:

In a blog post explaining the story in her own words, Richards wrote about how, over the course of the jokes, she moved from “I was going to let it go” to “I realized I had to do something.” The moment of decision came after seeing a picture of a young girl on the main stage who had attended a Young Coders workshop. “She would never have the chance to learn and love programming,” Richards wrote, “because the ass clowns behind me would make it impossible for her to do so.”

Clearly, this is hyperbole. These two guys weren’t going to prevent anybody from doing anything. Suddenly, a couple off-color jokes represented all the serious forces that can hold women back from tech careers. While denouncing bad behavior certainly has its place, proportion is important—and this approach to these jokes simply makes it harder to have a sincere discussion about misogyny and men’s/women’s issues in the workplace.

It’s only hyperbole if you misinterpret it. No, I doubt Richards thought these two guys were going to run up on the stage and slap awards off the podium and denounce the young girl being recognized. Richards was referring to a culture that considers those kinds of off-color remarks reasonable in a professional setting. Remember, “it’s still common”. That is what inhibits women from participating in these opportunities.

We’re living in a world where those off-color jokes are dismissed as “classless brospeak”, not worth making a fuss over, while someone tweeting a picture of someone engaging in “classless brospeak” is a disproportionate response, and “makes it harder to have a sincere discussion about misogyny and men’s/women’s issues in the workplace”.

But unwanted sexual innuendo doesn’t? Both men and women make jokes about sex, of course, and there’s a tricky line to be drawn between what’s appropriate and what isn’t, but one of the things I’m seeing all over the place is that in the conversation about where to draw the line, women are expected to shut up; that when they do speak up, however mildly, and say “not cool” or “guys, don’t do that”, boom, the guyverse explodes and denounces the damned uppity woman in either the most furious and violent terms possible, or with polite little suggestions that maybe they should be quieter next time.

But you know, the latter is almost as bad as the former. It’s the privilege of the majority to use politeness to maintain the status quo, while it’s a necessity for the minority to assert the right to offend.

Science makes you good! (Sometimes.)

You’ve probably heard this explanation for the virtue of religion: that even if god doesn’t exist, belief in god (or some other monitoring authority) makes people behave more morally. There have been many experiments that have actually shown that people are nicer or more generous when exposed to religious concepts, such as this one by Norenzayan and Shariff.

In one of their own studies, they primed half the participants with a spirituality-themed word jumble (including the words divine and God) and gave the other half the same task with nonspiritual words. Then, they gave all the participants $10 each and told them that they could either keep it or share their cash reward with another (anonymous) subject. Ultimately, the spiritual-jumble group parted with more than twice as much money as the control. Norenzayan and Shariff suggest that this lopsided outcome is the result of an evolutionary imperative to care about one’s reputation. If you think about God, you believe someone is watching. This argument is bolstered by other research that they review showing that people are more generous and less likely to cheat when others are around. More surprisingly, people also behave better when exposed to posters with eyes on them.

One explanation is that simply alerting people to the possibility of surveillance makes them more careful. God is just the most popular boogeyman.

But here’s an interesting twist on the Norenzayan and Shariff study, with very similar protocols. Ma-Kellams and Blascovich also had subjects do a word scramble before sharing a money reward, and also had them make moral judgments after reading a story about date rape, and assessed their opinion on a certain controversial subject.

The twist: the word scramble contained science terms (“logical,” “hypothesis,” “laboratory,” “scientists,” “theory”), and the controversial subject was science.

I think you can guess where this is going. Thinking about science makes you more moral!

Across the four studies presented here, we demonstrated the morally normative effects of thinking about science. Priming lay notions of science leads individuals to endorse more stringent moral norms (Studies 1, 2), report greater prosocial intentions (Study 3), and exhibit more morally normative behavior (Study 4). The moralizing effects of science were observed both by using naturalistic measures of exposure to science (e.g., field of study) as well as laboratory manipulations of thought-accessibility, and emerged across a broad array of domains, including interpersonal violations (Study 1), academic dishonesty (Studies 2), prosocial behaviors (Study 3), and economic exploitation (Study 4).

It is important to note that the primes used across all studies activated broad, general, lay notions of science rather than specific scientific findings. The key words used the science primes (logical, hypothesis, laboratory, scientists, and theory) were likely associated with semantic notions of rationality, impartiality and progress–notions that are a part of the broader moral view of science as a way of building a mutually beneficial society in which rational tools are used to improve the human condition.

Another important caveat is that it’s a typical psychology study, using a small pool of undergraduates at the University of California Santa Barbara, so they’re actually tapping into very narrow cultural norms. A group of students who were familiar with the Tuskegee syphilis study, to name just one exception, might respond to priming with science words very differently, while people from a less science-dependent culture might find the exercise meaningless.

But still, I don’t think those keywords would prompt concerns about being monitored and compelling people to police their behavior more carefully — they might instead switch people into slightly different modes of thought, where, as the authors suggest, different values are emphasized more. And maybe that’s what culture is actually doing: it’s reinforcing desirable associations in people’s minds to subtly shape their behavior. Clearly, though, we don’t need religion to do that. As a vehicle for positive values, anything can work: religion, football, stamp collecting, Pokemon, comedy, technology, television, or science (similarly, I think it’s also obvious that those media can also be vehicles for destructive values).

If you’re going to make anything an agent of virtue, though, it would help if it had the advantage of being fundamentally true in the first place…which is where religion falls down hard. If one of the values we want to enhance is honesty, for instance, you can’t do it with a medium that is a tissue of lies.

Hamza Tzortzis is playing gotcha with Lawrence Krauss now

After that debate between Tzortzis and Lawrence Krauss that was overshadowed by the disgraceful anti-egalitarian exhibition of Muslim misogyny, iERA is now trying a new tactic: they’re releasing tiny snippets of the debate that they believe they can spin into anti-Krauss sentiment. Here’s a perfect example, Krauss’s reply to a question about the morality of incest.

The audience gasped when Krauss said it’s not clear to him that incest is wrong, and then he went on to argue that there are biological and societal reasons why incest is not a good idea, but that he’d be willing to listen to rational arguments for sexual and emotional interactions between siblings, for instance…not that he’d encourage such behavior. It’s a nuanced and complicated reply in too short a time, but otherwise, he’s not wrong.

But you know what Tzortzis is thinking: this is a perfect clip to play to the dogmatic mob, his people, who don’t do complicated and nuanced, and don’t care about rational arguments, only absolute dictates.

I’d add two other arguments that might sink in.

One is that religions also rationalize incest. Here’s the Protestant Christian example:

Since Eve was made from one of Adam’s ribs [Genesis 2:21-22], she would have been a clone of Adam and, had there been any genetic mutation in Adam, this would have been reproduced in Eve and expressed in their offspring. However, we may reasonably conclude that there were no mutations, and the very first commandment given to them was “to be fruitful and multiply” [Genesis 1:28]. However, the business at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil took place long before there were any children.

The account then continues where God confronted the guilty pair at the tree, but they did not confess their guilt or plead for forgiveness [Genesis 3:1-13]. God then cursed the serpent, imposed reproductive difficulties upon Eve and “cursed the ground for [Adam’s] sake” [Genesis 3:17]. From that moment, everything that Adam – and mankind since – ate had grown in the cursed ground. Cell by living cell, Adam began to very slowly change from his initial state of eternal perfection to mortal imperfection, and he finally died at the age of 930 years [Genesis 5:5]. Nevertheless, Adam and Eve’s immediate offspring would have been very close to physical perfection while brother-sister marriages were the only unions possible! Further, according to the genealogies given in Scripture, pre-flood longevity was about the same as that for Adam, so families were very large compared to those of today. Brother-sister unions were not only unavoidable, but they undoubtedly became traditional and expected.

Catholics make a similar argument.

Incest was not a problem for the immediate descendants of Adam and Eve. It became a problem when the deterioration of the gene pool meant that there was an increased likelihood that the offspring of the unions of near relatives would inherit physical or mental problems. Adam’s immediate descendants inherited perfect or nearly perfect genes, so the unions of near relatives were not a problem. Besides, near relatives were the only people who existed.

Muslims, too.

it is a known fact that legislation differs from one Shari’ah to another, while the principles and beliefs remain the same in all of them. So, making of portraits was allowed in the Shari’ah of Sulayman (peace be upon him) but is prohibited in our Shari’ah. Similarly, making prostration of salutation was permitted in the Shari’ah of Yusuf (peace be upon him) but is illegal in ours. Also, war booty was prohibited for nations before us but it is completely legal for us. The Qiblah of people before us used to be towards Bayt Al-Maqdis, but for us it is towards Ka’bah. In a similar way, marriage between brothers and sisters was permitted in the Shari’ah of Adam (peace be upon him) as opposed to those that came afterwards. The following is a clarification on the issue by Haafidh Ibn Katheer, who said:

Allaah allowed Adam (peace be upon him) to marry his daughters to his sons for necessity. Every couple used to have a boy and a girl. Hence, he married the girl of one couple to the boy of another. This is said by Suddi regarding what has been narrated by Abu Maalik and Abu Salih, from Ibn ‘Abbas, by Murrah from Ibn Mas‘ood and by other companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him) that Adam did not have (in his grandchildren) a baby boy unless it was accompanied by a girl, so he married the male of a couple to the female of another, and the female of a couple to the male of another

So apparently their absolute moral prohibition against incest isn’t quite so absolute after all. A good Muslim can fuck his sister if Allah tells him to.

But the other example I’d give is current, and it’s done all the time. Ever looked at a purebred Arabian horse’s pedigree? It’s an incestuous nightmare, and it’s encouraged — it’s even regarded as a good thing to reinforce good stock with a moderate amount of inbreeding.

Here’s an example of a horse pedigree. Notice what’s going on?

horsepedigree

Look at Pie’s Joseph, for instance. He is the product of a breeding between Wood’s Jay and Wood’s Jay’s granddaughter, Wood’s Chili.

Pie’s Joseph was then bred with his own niece, Pie’s Lady I, and they had a daughter, Pie’s Lady II. Pie’s Joseph was than bred to his own daughter to produce a son, Blue Joe, who is also his grandson.

Let’s not even get into cows and pigeons. Here’s a quick glimpse at the sordid sex life of Favorite:

cowpedigree

Are you squicked out yet? You shouldn’t be. This stuff is going on on farms all over the world. The biological prohibition isn’t quite as strong as you might think — if you want extremes of a phenotype, as you might in agriculture, trying to achieve selective homozygosity for specific traits might actually give you an advantage.

We tend to not want that kind of result in human crosses…although, if you think about it, an unscrupulous nation could embark on a breeding program for athletic ability that would benefit from a multi-generation pattern of incest…

But this all highlights a common problem: get into a debate with fanatics and ideologues like the iERA mob, and they will actually hold it against you if you actually consider the complexities of reality. We like both complexity and reality; how can you argue with someone who comes in with a bias that what you regard as virtues are sinful, and demands that the universe fit itself to their false simplicities?

Scientific morality: an example

Every once in a while, I hear these stirrings from scientists that there can be an objective morality, and that by following reason and evidence we can achieve great advances in ethics and reduce human suffering. I agree, in part. I think reason and science are the only ways we can implement our goals effectively, and that we should be empirically assessing our progress and making changes as necessary in a rational way. But — and this is a huge exception — science is not sufficient. Scientists are flawed, and while you can use science to optimally reach a particular goal, setting that goal in the first place is not determinable by scientific methods.

As a useful corrective to the scientific optimists, I suggest you read Francis Galton’s Memories of My Life, and try to do so with an open mind. That’ll be hard to do, because he says things that we now regard as repugnant, that we learned with hard lessons in the 20th century, lessons he did not experience. I think if Galton had lived through that period, he would have adjusted his opinions accordingly; charitably, I think I can safely assume from his writings that he had a sincere concern for improving the state of humanity, and that all that he proposed would have been for the betterment of individuals.

Man is gifted with pity and other kindly feelings; he has also the power of preventing many kinds of suffering. I conceive it to fall well within his province to replace Natural Selection by other processes that are more merciful and not less effective.

Try to keep that in mind when you read these quotes from his chapter on “Race Improvement”. He’s a scientist with only the highest aspirations for others. But he’s also a flawed scientist with imperfect knowledge, and a human being with a heavy freight of prejudices. He doesn’t realize that he’s paving the road to Hell with his intentions.

Here are the words of an upper middle class Victorian gentlemen who proposes to judge people and determine the value of other lives.

The most common misrepresentations now are that its methods must be altogether those of compulsory unions, as in breeding animals. It is not so. I think that stern compulsion ought to be exerted to prevent the free propagation of the stock of those who are seriously afflicted by lunacy, feeble- mindedness, habitual criminality, and pauperism, but that is quite different from compulsory marriage. How to restrain ill-omened marriages is a question by itself, whether it should be effected by seclusion, or in other ways yet to be devised that are consistent with a humane and well-informed public opinion. I cannot doubt that our democracy will ultimately refuse consent to that liberty of propagating children which is now allowed to the undesirable classes, but the populace has yet to be taught the true state of these things. A democracy cannot endure unless it be composed of able citizens; therefore it must in self-defence withstand the free introduction of degenerate stock.

Note what he considers both undesirable and heritable: Poverty. Crime. Intelligence. He can glibly divide humanity into classes, some of which are “undesirable”. He is looking for humane ways to prevent undesirables from propagating.

He has high moral aims! Keep that in mind; if it were actually true that poor people birthed children who were genetically determined to be poor, shouldn’t we do something about it? Of course, he’s not thinking it through: he can’t legitimately claim that poverty is biologically heritable (it sure is environmentally influenced, though!) and he certainly doesn’t seem to comprehend that poverty is a consequence of an unequal distribution of resources.

He’s also incredibly unaware of his own peculiar biases, biases that leap out to the more modern eye.

Most notabilities have been great eaters and excellent digesters, on literally the same principle that the furnace which can raise more steam than is usual for one of its size must burn more freely and well than is common. Most great men are vigorous animals with exuberant powers and an extreme devotion to a cause. There is no reason to suppose that in breeding for the highest order of intellect we should produce a sterile or a feeble race.

So “great men” are big-bellied men? Where is cause and effect here? Where is the evidence?

One of the dangers of science is that sometimes individuals get so captivated by that heady feeling of success and progress — and let’s not get carried away too far in the other direction, science definitely works and is a far better tool for understanding than any other process — that they forget the limitations, and assume that there every thought is pure and vindicated by scientific triumphalism. Francis Galton seems to have forgotten the meaning of the word humility. Your every opinion is not the same as scientifically-evaluated fact.

Speaking of arrogance and bias:

I may here speak of some attempts by myself, made hitherto in too desultory a way, to obtain materials for a “Beauty-Map” of the British Isles. Whenever I have occasion to classify the persons I meet into three classes, “good, medium, bad,” I use a needle mounted as a pricker, wherewith to prick holes, unseen, in a piece of paper, torn rudely into a cross With a long leg. I use its upper end for “good,” the cross-arm for “medium,” the lower end for “bad.” The prick-holes keep distinct, and are easily read off at leisure. The object, place, and date are written On the paper. I used this plan for my beauty data, classifying the girls I passed in streets or elsewhere as attractive, indifferent, or repellent. Of course this was a purely individual estimate, bat it was consistent, judging from the conformity of different attempts in the same population. I found London to rank highest for beauty; Aberdeen lowest.

I should like to see a complementary set of prick-holes made by the women he so judged, who were then given the opportunity to evaluate the beauty of Francis Galton. Further, I’d like to see a pair of assessments, the first made before the women were told what he’d been doing, and the second after. I think it would be apparent that far from being objective scientific measurement, this was an appalling exercise in subjectivity.

BertillonMugShot

There’s also the bias of the chosen parameters: women were judged for beauty, their most salient characteristic, while Great Men were judged by the size of their guts.

And here’s the dangerous part: that a person can then claim that their views are blessed by Science and Darwin’s Law of Natural Selection. You can’t argue with me; I have the authority of Science, no matter how racist or sexist my views might be.

I venture to offer an explanation of this apparent anomaly which seems perfectly satisfactory from a scientific point of view. It is neither more nor less than that the development of our nature, under Darwin’s law of Natural Selection, has not yet overtaken the development of our religious civilisation. Man was barbarous but yesterday, and therefore it is not to be expected that the natural aptitudes of his race should already have become moulded into accordance with his very recent advance. We men of the present centuries are like animals suddenly transplanted among new conditions of climate and of food; our instincts fail us under the altered circumstances.

My theory is confirmed by the fact that the members of old civilisations are far less sensible than those newly converted from barbarism, of their nature being inadequate to their moral needs. The conscience of a Negro is aghast at his own wild impulsive nature, and is easily stirred by a preacher; but it is scarcely possible to ruffle the self-complacency of a steady-going Chinaman.

Now if you accept these prejudices as true, we cannot avoid Galton’s rational conclusion.

It is known that a considerable part of the huge stream of British charity furthers by indirect and unsuspected ways the production of the Unfit; it is most desirable that money and other attention bestowed on harmful forms of charity should be diverted to the production and well-being of the Fit. For clearness of explanation we may divide newly married couples into three classes, with respect to the probable civic worth of their offspring. There would be a small class of “desirables,” a large class of “passables,” of whom nothing more will be said here, and a small class of “undesirables.” It would clearly be advantageous to the country if social and moral support as well as timely material help were extended to the desirables, and not monopolised as it is now apt to be by the undesirables.

Pretend that there actually was a class of “undesirables,” people destined to be rotten wastrels who would increasingly drain society of its worth (further, suppose they are the poor rather than, say, investment bankers). You could legitimately argue that Galton’s solution is a good one. Wouldn’t that be a dilemma for all us godless liberals; we’d have a logical solution to a real problem, that would require a most illiberal course of action to reach an advantage for our country.

But of course, being a scientist doesn’t mean one is right. Declaring a course of action to be beneficial for society ought to be met with questions about “beneficial for who?” Premises for a claim that seem to do nothing but mirror common social prejudices ought to be questioned, and one good use for science is to test those claims…and perhaps finding that those foundations are rotten ought to be grounds to deny that the authority of science is backing up one’s actions.

And even if every claim was true, it doesn’t necessarily narrow our course as much as some would claim.

Anyway, whenever someone announces that science tells us that particular path is the one true path, or that their arguments are unassailable because they are Scientific, I always turn to high-minded scientist Francis Galton. Imagine a society that tried to actually implement his ideas…oh, wait. Imagine? Read a history book.

Note to self: do not trust reviews in the NY Times

Tesla-Model-S

John Broder of the NY Times recently reviewed the Tesla Model S electric car, and panned it. Now I know nothing at all about this car; I’m not endorsing or criticizing it myself, and I’m not going to be able to tell you anything about the specs on this vehicle or how well or how poorly it delivers on its promises. But I can tell when someone is actively lying in a review, when evidence is provided.

The Tesla company had a device installed in the reviewed vehicle to automatically log just about everything the driver did. And the reviewer lied about what he did. It’s an appalling example of outright faking his observations — a scientific publication with that degree of fudging the data to achieve a desired conclusion would get you fired.

But now I’m wondering why — why would somebody cheat on his evaluation of a car? Personal bias? Or — uh-oh, conspiracy theory time — were there financial interests behind doing a bad review?


And now…the counterargument.

Should we resurrect the Neandertals?

I was reading an interview with George Church, who was discussing that very same question, and somehow I had to rethink some things.

There was the question of technical feasibility, and Church thinks it’s going to be entirely possible in the near future.

The first thing you have to do is to sequence the Neanderthal genome, and that has actually been done. The next step would be to chop this genome up into, say, 10,000 chunks and then synthesize these. Finally, you would introduce these chunks into a human stem cell. If we do that often enough, then we would generate a stem cell line that would get closer and closer to the corresponding sequence of the Neanderthal. We developed the semi-automated procedure required to do that in my lab. Finally, we assemble all the chunks in a human stem cell, which would enable you to finally create a Neanderthal clone.

I agree entirely: no problem. It would be very hard and expensive to do right now, but not impossible. Biotechnology is advancing at such a rapid rate, though, that in 5 years it will be difficult but within the range of what a few well-funded labs could do, in ten years it will look like a straightforward, simple exercise, and in 20 years high school kids will be doing it in their garage.

The technology is not the issue, and it isn’t even a particularly interesting technological problem. The issue is one of ethics. Church takes a reasonable tack on that one: he punts.

I tend to decide on what is desirable based on societal consensus. My role is to determine what’s technologically feasible. All I can do is reduce the risk and increase the benefits.

Fair enough. We will face clear social dictates as the tech becomes more and more readily doable, and that’s ultimately going to determine whether the experiment is done or not.

But I started to think about reasons for and against, and I must confess something terrible: my first thought was that it shouldn’t be done, and to come up with arguments against it. I know, that’s weird…my mad scientist gland must be on the fritz. But my primary concern was that this is science that could create a human being, a human being with significant genetic differences from other human beings, and that should be accompanied by heavy responsibilities — a lifetime of responsibilities. It’s easy to look at it as an exercise in gene-juggling, but this is an experiment you don’t get to dump into the biological waste receptacle when the molecular biology is all done — it has an outcome that is conscious and communicating, damn it. It’s an experiment that at its end makes someone in the lab a parent, with all the obligations associated with that. And that’s a tremendous burden. There’s the cost, the time, the emotional investment…not stuff we usually take into account in the lab.

So I tried to think about what we’d have to do to morally justify Neandertal cloning. As Church also mentions, we couldn’t just do one, we’d have to create a cohort so that these people wouldn’t be alone. The budget would have to include a substantial trust fund for each — you can’t just create a person and then kick them out into the street to fend for themselves.There would have to be adults dedicated to providing for the emotional needs of these children…

Wait a minute. That’s where my brain froze up for a moment. If a scientist is expected to feel that kind of moral responsibility for his children, what about other people? We live in a culture where teenagers carry out a similar experiment every day, with no thought at all except personal need and gratification, and are then compelled to carry the experiment to term and produce a baby they are ill-equipped to care for, because their parents insist that that is what good Christians must do. Single mothers are treated like scum, and on average have the lowest income of any group — they are expected to raise children in poverty. We let children starve to death in this country all the time. Even when they’re fed, we feel no obligation to provide them with a good education — we’re in the process of dismantling the public school system and letting future generations fester in ignorance. There is a societal consensus right now, and it’s nowhere near as demanding as I expected!

And with that, my mad scientist gland was unshackled and grew two sizes larger. We can do the experiment! We should just go ahead and do the molecular biology, produce human stem cells with Neandertal sequences inserted (ooh, even partial sequences — that would be exciting!) and get them implanted and born, do a few preliminary experiments on their behavior, and then wrap them up in a blanket, put ’em in a basket, and have a grad student drop them off at the nearest orphanage. Especially if it’s a Catholic orphanage. Easy! There don’t seem to be any societal constraints against doing that with Homo sapiens sapiens infants, which we supposedly value most highly, so there shouldn’t be any ethical concerns at all in doing it with the mutant lab-born spawn of a test tube and a sequencer.

My mistake was in holding scientists to a higher ethical standard. If all we’ve got to do is match societal norms, we’re suddenly open to doing all kinds of ghastly horrible things to children.

Of course, this grand plan would be short-circuited if society did start expressing higher concerns for children and demanded better of parents. I’m thinking as a developmental biologist, I should start voting Republican, simply to keep the raw material of our work sufficiently devalued and cheap.

The radical King

Perhaps it is a good idea today to remember what Martin Luther King was really about, rather than the sanitized conciliatory sweet little Negro memorialized in this holiday.

America began perverting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s message in the spring of 1963. Truthfully, you could put the date just about anywhere along the earlier timeline of his brief public life, too. But I mark it at the Birmingham movement’s climax, right about when Northern whites needed a more distant, less personally threatening change-maker to juxtapose with the black rabble rousers clambering into their own backyards. That’s when Time politely dubbed him the "Negroes’ inspirational leader," as Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff point out in their excellent book Race Beat.

Up until then, King had been eyed as a hasty radical out to push Southern communities past their breaking point — which was a far more accurate understanding of the man’s mission. His "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" is in fact a blunt rejection of letting the establishment set the terms of social change. "The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation," he wrote, later adding, "We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed."

No more Lance Armstrong

OK, we’re all done with professional bully, liar, and drug abuser Lance Armstrong, right?

The interview began with seven very effective yes or no questions, getting the central truths, the truths Armstrong has denied for so long, out of the way in a brutal incantation: Did you ever take banned substances to enhances your cycling performance? Yes. EPO? Yes. Blood doping? Yes? Testosterone, Cortisone, Human Growth Hormone? Yes. Was he doping for all seven of his Tour De France victories? Yes.

That Armstrong is a fraud who doesn’t deserve the millions of dollars he’s sitting on right now isn’t even a question anymore. The only real question is…is professional cycling roughly equivalent to professional wrestling on the hokum scale?

Catholic hospitals have ethics commissions?

But aren’t ethics in conflict with Catholic policy?

The latest case of Catholic callousness comes out of Germany, where a young woman was brought into an emergency center with signs of sexual assault; she had no memory of what had occurred and may have been doped with a date rape drug. She was treated by a Dr Maiworm, who then called the local Catholic hospital to arrange a gynecological examination, which ought to be routine. But that’s where it gets strange.

According to the paper, the doctor told Maiworm that the hospital’s ethics commission, after consulting with Cardinal Joachim Meisner, had decided not to conduct exams after sexual attacks, so as not to be in the position of having to advise on possible unwanted pregnancies resulting from the attacks.

Maiworm told the paper that the doctor did not change her mind, despite having been told that she had already written the woman a prescription for the morning-after pill. A colleague of Maiworm’s was given a similar explanation at another Catholic hospital in Cologne, according to the paper. Both hospitals are run by the Foundation of the Cellites of St. Mary.

The church is now claiming that it was all a “misunderstanding”, and that they don’t have a policy denying treatment to rape victims. But that still doesn’t explain why this woman was turned away and not given a routine examination.

I think the simplest solution for the future is to simply deny Catholic dogmatists any influence on medical decisions at all. Haven’t recent events been sufficient to conclude that they’re morally compromised?